Sunday, January 13, 2008

Australian Open: The New Year's Resolution of Slams

When the Australian Open switched from being an end of season/Christmas affair to kicking off the tennis calendar, it quickly became the New Year's Resolution of Slams. Tennis' notoriously short off season hardly gives the players time to take a breath, let alone time to fine tune their games and physical fitness. However, some players use the Aussie the way the rest of us buy a new stationary bike from QVC. More often than not these are the players who don't work so hard during the season. The challenge for them, as it is for us, is to see how long it takes before stashing the bike in the junk room closet.

We saw this most dramatically with Andre Agassi. Even before Agassi stopped being a bonehead, he usually came to Australia fit and on fire, as if he knew he was wasting his talent by vacillating between eating bonbons in Hollywood and embracing his identity as a tennis player. He has four titles down under, all but one predating his tennis (and life) Renaissance. 

Serena Williams, who is perhaps destined to be the Agassi of  her generation, came away with the title last year after several years of up and down efforts. Like Agassi before her, she came into the AO sounding like a walking self-help manual. Problem is, judging from her website chats, Serena hasn't quite mastered the self-help genre. 

Marat Safin is another underachieving jackass who seems to show up Down Under intent on taking tennis seriously. Safin has three appearances in the finals and one title to his name. His body of work at the Aussie includes a classic five-set victory over Roger Federer in the 2005 semis. Safin has the ability to challenge Federer on every surface, he just doesn't have the interest or the will. Safin is a dark horse to win every tournament he plays, and just as likely to lose in the first round. Still, Safin thinks his best tennis "could happen at any moment."

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